Tarell Alvin McCraney's tender, poetical drama The Brothers Size (Fountain Theatre) and Billy Van Zandt & Jane Milmore's meta-theatrical farce Drop Dead! (presented by Theatre 68, at North Hollywood's NoHo Arts Center) share one salient commonality: Each production has moments when the actors recite stage directions about their own characters.
There's precedent for the device, from Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood — an ensemble-performed portrait of a quaint Welsh village — to any number or literary adaptations staged by the likes of Seattle's Book-It Repertory Company, where the company's hallmark is putting books onstage in a style of presentation that has characters reciting not only their own dialogue but also the author's narration surrounding it.
There's something more jocular than intrusive about the device. You'd think it would snap the flow of emotions drawn from text and subtext that actors work so hard to generate, like the splash from a pebble thrown into a swift-moving stream. But it doesn't.
Such narrative interruptions are an integral part of playwright McCraney's style: It shows up in The Brothers Size in much the same way it did in his In the Red and Brown Water, presented by the same theater in 2012. Both were directed by Shirley Jo Finney and choreographed by Ameenah Kaplan with seamless physicality and dramatic urgency. Both plays study African-Americans in Louisiana and take 90 minutes to two hours to set up one excruciating decision that cuts to the core of the deciding character's humanity.
The Brothers Size homes in on a pair of brothers: Ogun (Gilbert Glenn Brown) owns an auto shop and is caring for his younger, parolee brother, Oshoosi (Matthew Hancock). Through the intervention of Oshoosi's jailhouse friend Elegba (Theo Perkins), Oshoosi finds himself a fugitive, sorely testing the love and loyalty between the siblings.
Yet the story is far greater than its plot. It lies in the characters' gorgeous drift into song, and into segments of Kaplan's intoxicating choreography and, finally, into those wry moments when stage directions are narrated. Example: Ogun rages when he tells Oshoosi something, but Ogun has the coda, "smiling." We don't see him smile at all. He looks royally pissed off, and the line gets a laugh. Yet somewhere perhaps, on some strata of Ogun's soul that's covered with muscle and tendons, he's smiling. It's something for us to imagine, or at least to consider.
The muscular ensemble doesn't let up for a moment. This is sure to be one of the season's memorable productions.
Drop Dead!, directed by co-writer Van Zandt, is now almost 30 years old, and it shows. That's not meant to belittle the fine, pull-out-the-stops ensemble, which has been directed to play this play-within-a-play farce with gestures and expressions and double-takes so over-the-top in this intimate venue that you'd think they were prepping it for the Pantages.
A theater troupe is staging a murder mystery show for its Broadway debut, and the comedy is of the "Can a show in trouble be saved?" genre that theater lovers warm to. We start by watching the show, with furniture painted onto the walls of the $35 set, only to discover that it's a rehearsal — at which point the Gay Concept Director, Victor Le Pewe (Cy Creamer), his doting Assistant (Timothy Alonzo), the Dollars-in-His Eyes Producer P.G. "Piggy" Banks (Barry Brisco) and eventually the Forlorn Playwright Alabama Miller (Grey Rodriguez) all put in appearances. No theater cliché goes unturned, which is part of the show's antique charm, and also part of its capacity to irritate.
Brisco, and Mews Small — portraying a deaf cast elder — get points for pulling off the overbearing style with a persistent, subtle sense of bewilderment. On the other end of the scale, Claudine Claudio as the resident diva is equally impressive, bringing sharp authenticity to her grandiloquent attitude and gestures.
There are some very funny moments of timeless physical comedy, such as how the show's leading man (the excellent Bill Doherty Jr.) gets his nose broken, and in the playwright's "My life is over" opening-night speech.
The show mostly satirizes a former, expunged era. Still, when the forgetful elder actress's directions, read into headphones she's wearing, get "accidentally" broadcast for the audience to hear, or when another character, subbing on opening night, forgets his lines, pulls out a paper and reads out loud, "Exit upstage right," we're back in that intriguing land where first person meets third.
THE BROTHERS SIZE | By Tarell Alvin McCraney | Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hlywd. | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through July 27 | (323) 663-1525 | fountaintheatre.com
DROP DEAD! | By Billy Van Zandt | Presented by Theatre 68 at NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 28 | (323) 960-5068 | theatre68.com